After President Trump's cheery address to the National Association of Electrical Contractors today, in which he took credit for the growing U.S. economy by cutting taxes, taxing imports and easing energy regulations, Trump's Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta, fielded questions from reporters about the federal government's role, and its limits, in helping boost wages and fill the increasing number of vacant jobs. Highlights:
With Amazon paying at least $15 and hour, is it time the U.S. boost the national minimum above $7.25? A number of states have increased their minimum wages. Cities have. Companies like Amazon have… They have flexibility. We're a big nation, that's what the system allows.
The President praised apprenticeships and job-training programs. Is the administration doing anything to promote them? A week ago I was at a career construction academy in Texas. A magnet (public) high school providing skills education to individuals in electrical work and construction. Every year, 600 apply. There are 150 seats. The employers in that area have a lack of workers, in an area that pays well — they are starting some people at $50,000. I said, why aren't you taking more students?
Aren't these training programs expensive? The school districts have the resources. They don't choose to spend them on these programs. They need to reallocate to prepare people for the jobs that are out there.
You think high schools are too focused on prepping kids for college? I do think there's a little problem. They focus on the top percentiles. Too much on AP[Advanced Placement] and IB [International Baccalaureate] courses and SAT prep. Many Americans get their jobs for something other than their SAT scores. We need to honor the kid who graduates with his certificate and goes into an apprenticeship.
Is the federal government pushing local schools toward training for local employers? Education is a local issue. It's not for the Department of Labor to tell each school's instructors how to spend their money. But that is the schools' job: are we preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow? So many students drop out, who could benefit (from school-based job training). And that career construction academy was teaching math — in a roofing class. They were measuring angles. Trigonometry. It was practical. That's what we need more.
Who runs the best apprenticeship programs, the model? The building trades, employers and unions like NECA and IBEW Local 98 here in Philadelphia, are the example. Through union-management contract agreements, they take a few pennies for every hour worked and put it in a trust fund and provide skills to their members. All the building trades together spend $1 billion a year in apprenticeship programs. We're looking to draft new guidelines for apprenticeships, take this union model and expand it to other industries. For healthcare, advanced manufacturing, coding.
What is the Trump administration doing about this? At the Department of Labor we did something we hadn't done before. We took $150 million and made it available to educational institutions, but only as matching grants for private-sector funding. To have access to money, they need to find a business partner to match that money. This is demand-driven education. Education that responds to the technical demands of the workplace. Not like the particular community college we know of, that teaches its own kind of welding, but they can't use it at the shipyard that is a major employer in that community. The shipyard has to retrain everyone. I'm creating an incentive where, if the schools want federal grant funds, they have to talk to business and say, 'what do you-all need?'
Where did you get the $150 million? From the fees we collect from issuing (labor) visas (to foreign immigrants.) We are using the visa fee dollars to empower local educational institutions and to get them to partner with business.